How big data will save us from the climate crisis

    27 Oct 2021

    There’s a case of OneSoil startup, which analyzes data from fields so that land and other resources are used more efficiently? Firstly, it is very successful – in just a year, its audience has grown from 120 thousand farmers to 300+ thousand, and the observation area increased from 30 million hectares to more than 100 million. Secondly, the team foresaw a whole direction in the field of working with data.

    It seems that the correct processing and use of data will significantly help in the fight against the climate catastrophe that is unfolding before our very eyes.

    As monikers go, Subak may seem an odd choice for a new organization that aims to accelerate hi-tech efforts to combat the climate crisis, writes the Guardian. But, as it turned out, this Indonesian term refers to an ancient agricultural system that allows farmers to coordinate their efforts in irrigating and growing crops.

    “Subak allows farmers to fine-tune their water use and thus maximize rice production,” said Briony Worthington, founder and board member of a new non-profit climate change action group.

    “And that’s exactly what we’re going to do with the big data. By sharing data, we can maximize efforts to combat carbon emissions and global warming. In other words, data will become new water. ”

    Subak will select and fund nonprofit groups fighting the climate crisis in different parts of the planet. The first startups that Subak has already helped include a group helping local UK officials increase electric vehicle use and a team that uses accurate weather forecasts to make the best use of solar power across the UK and limit the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity.

    All of this is happening now after a week in the news headlines were replete with reminders of how dangerous life on Earth is becoming as global warming sweeps the planet. Floods in Germany and Belgium have killed more than 150 people; scientists have found that the rainforests of Brazil now emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb; fires devastated vast tracts of California forests. In each case, scientists warned that the rise in temperature caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere was likely to play a crucial role in causing these disasters.

    It is clear that urgent action is needed, says Lady Worthington, renowned climate change activist and lead author of the group that drafted the 2008 UK Climate Change Act. The law requires the UK to cut carbon emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels. At the time, Worthington was working with Friends of the Earth but was seconded to the government to help draft legislation. For her efforts, she received a peerage in 2010.

    Since then, Worthington has continued in the battle against the climate crisis, and in 2019 she read Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which focuses – disapprovingly – on hi-tech companies’ growing use of personal data to make money.

    “It woke me up to the fact a whole new world of digital tools was being deployed to generate profits,” says Worthington. “I realized it would be better if those tools could be used to save the planet – to protect the global commons – and not merely to boost share value.”

    Worthington contacted Gi Fernando, a tech entrepreneur, and the pair hatched the idea of Subak, which has since been given funding by the Quadrature Climate Foundation (QCF) that was recently set up by the London investment management company, Quadrature Capital. It aims to provide initial funding to help groups establish themselves and give expert guidance over legal, management, and other issues.

    “When you start up a company or group, you are quite alone,” says Fernando. “So if you have a community around you that can offer help – HR, finance, tools – that is incredibly helpful. And then, once that group gets on their feet, they can then start to help other startup entrepreneurs wanting to open new avenues to help fight climate change.”

    Fernando’s words are echoed by several of the groups that Subak has already helped to set up, such as Open Climate Fix. This aims to reduce carbon emissions by improving weather forecasts to make the best use of solar power plants – whose effectiveness is reduced when the weather is cloudy.

    “If we get very good data about forthcoming cloud cover, we will know exactly how much solar-generated electricity can be provided in the UK on a given day,” said Open Climate Fix’s co-founder, Jack Kelly. “That will mean we will not need to generate unnecessary electricity from other sources – in particular fossil fuel sources such as gas – because we have underestimated the solar power we will get that day. That will help to reduce carbon emissions.”

    Providing Subak with the engineers and software experts who turned satellite weather images into cloud predictions was a huge help, Kelly said.

    A similar tale is told by Richard Allan of New AutoMotive, which monitors how electric cars are being taken up in communities across the UK. Factors include vehicle use, sales patterns, and favorite types of cars and trucks. That data can be fed to local authorities to ensure charging stations, battery replacement services, and other resources are provided to maximize the take-up of electric cars.

    “Replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with electric versions as quickly as possible is going to be extremely important in reducing carbon emissions,” says Allan. “And data about take-up rates in communities will be vital in achieving that goal.”

    Worthington supports this view:

    “Just as a large corporation controls many different companies, Subak is going to help create many new divisions, each of which is focused on climate change control.”

    Worthington endorses this view. “Just as a major corporation has lots of different companies under its control, Subak is going to help set up lots of new outfits, each aimed at boosting efforts to control climate change.

    “We are going to be the Diageo of climate protection, though we will not be coordinating drink production. We will be generating precious data about the climate.”



    Climate crisis in numbers

    (according to Royal Society; US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Scientific American)

    415: The number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that make up the atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s, the global average amount of carbon dioxide was about 280ppm. Burning fossil fuels has since added a further 135ppm, and if global energy demand continues to grow and is met mostly with fossil fuels, that figure could exceed 900ppm by 2100.

    3.6mm: The estimated increase each year in sea level, according to tide gauges and satellite data measurements. This is a result of human-induced warming of the planet. It is projected that the sea level will rise a further 40 to 80cm by 2100, although future ice sheet melt could make these values considerably higher.

    43.1 billion: In 2019, that was the number of tons of carbon dioxide from human activities that were emitted into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that absorbs heat and release it gradually over time, like bricks in a fireplace after the fire goes out. Current increases in greenhouse gases have tipped the Earth’s energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature.

    28 trillion: The estimated numbers of tons of ice that our planet has lost between 1994 and 2017. Global warming has a particularly severe impact at higher latitudes, and this has been most noticeable in the Arctic. Scientists worry that as the ice melts, less solar radiation will be reflected back into space and temperatures will rise even faster. Ice loss will become increasingly severe as a result.

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